This is the Muddle East with its theatre of the absurd, enacted with tank rounds

We're a long way from even a distant prospect of peace. Threats abound in the interim, though in the midst of tragedy there is farce
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The Independent Online

It just seems to go on and on, indefinitely, relentlessly, unstoppably: an endless cycle of suicide bombers, retaliation, funerals and wailing relatives. The Holy Land is an unholy mess. Yet there is a paradox. Though peace may be further away than ever, more potential consensus as to the nature of that peace is apparent than has ever been throughout the entire history of the state of Israel.

It just seems to go on and on, indefinitely, relentlessly, unstoppably: an endless cycle of suicide bombers, retaliation, funerals and wailing relatives. The Holy Land is an unholy mess. Yet there is a paradox. Though peace may be further away than ever, more potential consensus as to the nature of that peace is apparent than has ever been throughout the entire history of the state of Israel.

In Washington, London, Jerusalem, Amman – and in other Arab capitals when they are speaking in private – there is a surprising amount of agreement as to the broad outlines of a peace deal. The Palestinians must have a state more or less equal in area to the territories the Israelis overran in 1967, so that they can take their place among the nations. The Israelis must have secure borders, recognised as such by the new Palestinian state and by Israel's Arab neighbours.

That all sounds reasonable enough. But in the Muddle East, anything which sounds reasonable ought to arouse immediate suspicion. If it is reasonable, it will not be workable.

The problems are manifold. In the first place, any viable Palestinian state would require the evacuation of large numbers of Israeli settlers. That would neither be an easy nor a peaceful process. The settlers include some of the most extreme elements of Israeli society. Many of them are Jewish fundamentalists, who believe that they are in the West Bank by divine right, to ensure that Judaea and Samaria regain their rightful place as part of the promised land of Eretz Israel.

These characters are not going to go quietly. When the Israelis handed back the Sinai to Egypt, they also had to evacuate a small number of Jewish settlers. Though they were few in number, in a region to which Israel had no historic claims, the television pictures of their forcible removal caused a lot of pain in Israel. The West Bank settlers would be a far more formidable obstacle. Their eviction could impose a breaking strain on Israel's political system.

Not that the Israelis are the only problem. If a peace deal were made, the Palestinians would have to renounce any hope of recovering the land they lost in 1948. Many of them are still reluctant to do this. Even many non-militant Palestinians would view a peace deal on the West Bank and Gaza as a mere stage one, creating a launch pad for a campaign to reverse the injustices of the Balfour Declaration and the 1948 war.

Then there is the little question of Old Jerusalem, captured by the Israelis in 1967, and venerated by the Jews for millennia. Temple Mount symbolises the difficulty. Buried within it, the foundations of Solomon's Temple: at its crest, the domes of the great mosque. In Jerusalem, archaeology is politics, and bloodletting.

With the maximum resources of goodwill, there could be a complicated arrangement on Jerusalem, with both sides poring over the A-to-Z of the Old City in order to reach some just-about-acceptable compromise. But there is not enough goodwill. There have been far too many disappointments, and too much blood. Not nearly enough people on either side are prepared to respect the other lot's case or to regard those opposite them in negotiations as persons of equal moral worth.

All this has led many observers to conclude that peace will require an international dimension. A surprising number of people in the Middle East itself – world-weary Arab ministers, liberal-minded Israelis – also despair of an internally generated peace deal and their fervent, closet hope is that an American administration will simply impose peace.

This might seem a tempting prospect. But the nearer one gets to the realities of implementation, the more remote it seems, for it is flawed by a misleading assumption. Almost all Arabs – and continental Europeans – believe that Israel is America's creature and that if any administration were firm enough for long enough, the Israelis would come grumbling into line. This view is shared by a good few older-generation Israelis, increasingly out of sympathy with current Israeli public opinion.

But that is the problem. Israel has changed. The economy is stronger, and therefore less dependent on US aid, which before the recent troubles in any case amounted to only 3 per cent of GDP. Moreover, the control of Israeli society has now passed from the old Israeli Labour Party-Ashkenazi, founding-father elite to Jews from the Arab lands and Russian Jews. These tend to be deeply sceptical about the possibility of reaching any accommodation with the Arabs and much more inclined towards the view that "what we have, we hold". Nor are they as Washington-oriented as their predecessors. Though they would be reluctant to risk a breach with the US, they would not rush to do an American President's bidding. Faced with pressure, they would procrastinate, and manipulate.

The American political system could have been expressly designed to maximise the power of lobbies. Congressmen, constantly in search of votes, are constantly vulnerable to pressure. Only a brave or foolhardy congressman would dare to incur the wrath of the Israeli lobby. Even if there were no Jewish voters within 500 miles of his district, he would suddenly discover that all of his electoral opponents had bulging bankrolls.

This is not to say that all American Jewish voters support Mr Sharon. On the contrary: in recent years, there have been several occasions when the Jewish lobby has divided against itself. But if it were ever to feel that Israel's vital interests were threatened, it would unite in an instant. If a substantial majority of Israelis rejected a proposed American peace deal, the Israeli lobby in the US would deploy all its resources to fight against it.

This means, in effect, that America could never impose a peace deal unless there were considerable support for that deal within Israel. That would already be hard to achieve. For every Israeli in whom bloodshed has induced war-weariness, there are at least two in whom the bloodshed has only inflamed intransigence and the desire for yet tougher measures against Israel's murderous foes.

Nor is the bloodshed likely to diminish. Those who are orchestrating the suicide bombings are not doing so in order to protest against Israel's presence in the West Bank. Their protest is against Israel's presence. The nearer the region came to a peace deal which guaranteed Israel's boundaries, the harder Hamas would try to bomb that deal off the table. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq will hardly encourage them.

We are a long way from even a distant prospect of peace. In the interim, threats abound, though in the very midst of tragedy there is farce. The lengths to which the Israelis will go to blast Yasser Arafat's house around him while not actually killing him is the theatre of the absurd enacted with tank rounds. But there could easily be an error. The whole area is beset by error and by terror. So it will continue.

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